From Dust – Review

Xbox Live Arcade Title
Price: 1200MSP
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

(This title was provided free of charge by the publishers for review)

I almost feel sorry for those little villagers as they around their village, screaming about the impending death and destruction that’s flowing down the hill toward them. With growing horror I realise that this latest disaster was caused by me accidently unleashing a torrent of water while arsing around on the other end of the map with my new-found god-like powers. And even with my all my power, I know that it’s simply too late to save them. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

It has been some considerable time since we’ve had anything resembling a god game, though “The Breath” in From Dust isn’t so much a god as a semi-powerful entity capable of messing around with the elements, but not capable of picking up a single goddamn villager and moving him across the island. As the game opens the villagers explain that they have lost much ancient knowledge and could really do with a hand because the world they live on seems utterly determined to wipe them from existence. And so, as would we all, they summon up The Breath. Theres little story to be had here, but as they say; it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and this is one journey that’s worth embarking on.

From Dusts singleplayer campaign has you guiding the villagers along a series of different levels and keep them from getting wiped off the face of the planet. This is going to prove to be a little difficult as the world they inhabit is a swirling ball of pent-up violence, determined to unleash torrents of molten lava and massive waves upon your innocent villagers. It’s like playing a more epic version of Lemmings. Your goal in each level is to occupy enough villages in the world to unlock the portal to the next, and should you happen to feel confident you can try to spread wildlife across the land which unlocks some of your tribes memories. Exactly how that works is an utter mystery; maybe lush grass stimulates the memory? The entire journey can be completed in around half a dozen hours, but that’s if you simply storm through each level and never stop to enjoy the freedom and play with your powers. And trust me, you’re going to play with your powers quite a bit. How could you not? You can create freakin’ mountains.

Occupying the villages throughout each levels augments your powers, granting you some truly fun powers such as parting seas like Moses, or snuffing out fires with a simple command. Should your basic abilities of moving earth, fire and water fail you these augmented abilities will often give you a momentary break or escape. This mixture of pure power allows you to shape and craft the world to your heart’s content; diverting a river is a simple task of creating a barrier. Mountains can be made, bridges formed, walls crafted and much fun had, and yet the world also changes entirely of it own accord. That little river you damned up can easily over-flow and come crashing down the valley and destroying your village. The smallest change in the world of From Dust can alter the landscape in ways you never saw coming. There’s a hugely satisfying feeling to be had when you shape the world, carefully guiding your villagers across the living, breathing world. Planning the best route across the map to gain access to the powers you’ll need is a challenge, and is key to success

It’s that world that steals the spotlight in From Dust. Your powers may be awesome, but the sheer display of physics and natural power that is on display far outstrips your miniscule abilities. The world feels alive, pulsing with power and capable of obliterating you should you make the smallest mistake. It’s unforgiving and vicious, and that’s why it’s so damn fun to fight against. Volcanoes can and will erupt with little warning, suddenly sending a new danger toward your beloved people. The attention to the detail that has been used to craft the physics system makes it all look so real as it pours down the  side of a cliff. tsunamis crashing across the terrain are amazing to watch, until you realise that it just swept away your village, at which point it becomes bloody frustrating. The amount of detail that has gone into crafting the physics to power From Dust is staggering; some of the best fun I had with the game was simply crafting the world and watching how it reacted to my changes. Simply moving a small piece of earth can set in motion a chain of events that alters the landscape and changes your game plan entirely. From Dusts world is a delicate eco-system, and your clumsiness can upset it in an instant.

As the levels progress the game continues to throw an ever changing mixture of challenges at you, whether it’s a simple case of repeating tidal waves or having to compete with huge rivers of water and lava at the same time. While each level does tend to reuse the same ideas, the nature of the game means that it will always feel different and it never gets old. Even by the games final states I wasn’t feeling tired of creating bridges or frantically defending my village against a tsunami. And most of the game requires some real thought to progress; simply blocking a river to allow your people to pass may seem like the solution, but if you fail to consider the implications of your actions the resulting flood may very well end your journey.

And yet for all your patient guidance and careful protection, it feels as though your people have a death wish. The AI pathfinding skills are utterly terrible. Villagers will almost always manage to get stuck on tiny hills, or pick the dumbest routes they possibly can. This can lead to a multitude of irritating moments as you watch a villager flounder with the stone that can save your village from the incoming torrent of lava. In his hands he holds the key to saving your village, but the little sod has gotten himself confused by a small mound of dirt. I frantically build him a little hill, but he refuses to move and I am forced to watch as the lava burns my villagers to death and the hour I just put into the level goes down the drain. And all because I can’t use my vast powers to simply pick the bastard up and throw him face first into the village. How I hate that little villager.

Once you’ve completed your journey to enlightenment you can also test your skills in the games challenge mode. There’s a good variety of challenges to be found and completed, and each is unlocked by venturing through the story mode. From putting out fires to guiding villagers across a range of obstacles, there’s a healthy variety of levels to try your hand at. Some of these challenges prove to be the most entertaining levels in the game, while others are utterly frustrating. But they certainly add some extra game time to the package, and that’s always a good thing. 

From Dust also delivers on the graphical front. The world is a beautifully presented scene of peace frequently interrupted by beautifully presented scenes of devastation. Lava flows across the land and water sinks the land in a great level of detail while your innocent little villagers scream in terror. It may be the end of the world for them, but it sure is pretty for us.

During the game I did find that my God-like powers seemed to be a little too powerful for my controller to handle. The controls feel a tad clumsy and imprecise which mean’t I’d had often make a last second grab for an important last bit of lava and miss completely or end up picking up the wrong element. Usually I had no problem working around this slight clumsiness, but in moments of stress that required quick reactions it did prove to a problem.

There are other, smaller problems to be mentioned, primarily the lack of buttons to jump to a village in trouble. Often I’d never notice a village burning, and when I did it would take me a considerably bit of time to maneuver the camera around and head off to save the day, by which point the village was usually already destroyed.

And finally the games lack of any real climax was rather disappointing. After my journey through the different lands I was expecting an epic final battle against the elements where I would have to utilize my every power and lesson learned, instead the game simply delivered another enjoyable level, and then it was over.

And yet, it was after the game ended that I had the most fun as From Dust hands you a new map, an array of new powers and then tells you to shape the world how you please, simply giving you freedom to create your own sandbox world. The game grants you the power to create infinite amounts of the different elements to carve your world from, and I spent a great amount of time simply creating a new world for my villagers and playing with the different elements. I may have also accidentally destroyed a few villages, but they deserved it. No, really, they did. Honest. Shut up.

From Dust has shown what kind of world can be made using todays technology, and it’s a bloody amazing one. A truly reactive, living world that can be molded to the players whim. And throughout my journey I never stopped enjoying myself; even when that little villager got stuck on a rock again. How I hate that little villager.

The Good:
+ A living, breathing world.
+ I’m like God!
+ Simply messing around with my powers.

The Bad:
– Villagers are suicidal.
– Some imprecise controls.
– Where  is my epic finale!?

The Scores:

Graphics: 9
A beautiful world has been created, just so you can stare at it. From water to lava, the physics are stunning as is the visuals.

Sound: 8
Volcanoes erupt with convincing gusto and tribal music helps set the mood for the end of the world.

Story: 5
These villagers want to get around the world in 80 days. Or something like that.

Gameplay: 8.5
Despite its problems, I had a thoroughly fun time playing From Dust. The gameplay is satisfying and combines beautifully with the games physics to craft a brilliant puzzle game.

Lifespan: 8
Around six hours will see you through the main story, plus another hour or two for the challenge mode. But it’s an easy game to play again and again thanks to the reactive world.

Overall: 8.5
Summary: At times it can feel more like a tech demo than a game, but then you craft a bridge and stem the tide of a volcano to save your village and remember that this is very much a game. A damn fun game. But if you want it put simply; it’s Lemmings, but on a bigger scale.

Categories: Reviews

Tagged as: , , , , ,

3 replies »

  1. I miss Populous. I miss it so much, that I even spent some major time on Black & White, even though I didn’t love it. Hopefully this will be more to my tastes. I even like the title. 😉

Leave a Reply! Seriously, I'm lonely. Talk to me. Hello? Anyone?